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food The government's new dietary guidelines ignite a huge food industry backlash

The government’s 2015 dietary guidelines currently in preparation by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have triggered a ferocious food industry backlash.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (L) and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell (R) were grilled Wednesday by the House Agriculture Committee over the government's 2015 dietary guidelines. ,(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

So much of the agriculture and food industry is affected by the release of the federal government's dietary guidelines every five years that it's natural to expect them to keep a close eye on the results.

The 2015 guidelines, which are currently in preparation by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services for release by the end of the year, have triggered an especially ferocious backlash. The issue has been the agencies' intention to include advice on "sustainability"--that is, the environmental impact of what we grow to eat.

In general, foods widely considered healthier, such as fresh vegetables, are more sustainable than beef and dairy products, which nutritionists say are too heavily represented in our diets anyway.

But on Tuesday, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that sustainability wouldn't be part of the guidelines after all. Their announcement preceded their joint appearance before the House Agriculture Committee, and plainly came in response to complaints from Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and others that members of the advisory panel had "neither evidence, expertise, nor charter" to incorporate sustainability into the guidelines. 

Responded nutrition expert Marion Nestle: "This is about politics, not science."

She might have added that it's about big business, too. The guidelines are just advisory to most Americans, but they're mandatory for millions of others, including military personnel, and nearly 40 million low-income parents and children served by the government's Women, Infants, and Children and National School Lunch programs.

Burwell and Vilsack wrapped their decision in a legalistic mantle, saying that the "policy conversation about sustainability" is outside the statutory "scope" of the dietary guidelines. That position has been conclusively demolished by public health lawyer Michele Simon, who observes that the campaign against a sustainability guideline is backed by the "meat lobby."

The relevance of sustainability to dietary health is outlined concisely by Kathleen Merrigan of George Washington University and several colleagues in a recent edition of Science (behind a paywall). Merrigan reports that this year the dietary guidelines advisory committee concluded that "a diet higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods," which it has advocated consistently,  is "not only more healthful but also is associated with less environmental impact than the average American diet."

There isn't much doubt about that. Merrigan notes that livestock production contributes to deforestation and methane pollution. Others report that water use by livestock ranchers dwarfs that of even almond growers, the popular culprits in the California drought. Not only does beef and other meat production demand more water in processing, but growing alfalfa and other forage foods also requires inordinate volumes of water.

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The backlash against the sustainability component is being advanced by pro-industry sources and conservative commentators. In a May 2014 briefing paper, Hanns Kuttner of the Hudson Institute dismissed "sustainability" as a liberal intellectual fad. Members of the dietary advisory committee, he wrote, "come from the world of academia where the nascent study of sustainability has captured their imaginations." Incorporating the principle in the guidelines, he charged, aimed to turn "the challenge of addressing Americans’ nutritional needs into a justification for a broad program of social change."

Among the more prominent opponents of the sustainability components are the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, the offspring of a billionaire former Enron natural gas trader who also funds campaigns against public employee pensions, as we reported in August. Arnold is funding the so-called Nutrition Coalition, which claims to be in favor of "rigorous science" and to be unaffiliated with "any industry group of any kind" (unless you consider John Arnold to be affiliated with industry).

The coalition boasts as a board member Nina Teicholz, an author who challenges the anti-meat and dairy orthodoxy of recent dietary standards and advocates for more animal fats in our diets. Her book is entitled "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet."

Via Politico Pro, Nestle reports that the Arnold Foundation intends to spend $200,000 to fight the guidelines.

"Really?" she asks. "Eating fruits and vegetables and not overeating calories requires this level of lobbying? This too is about politics. The mind boggles."